Just a few months ago, Oklahoma was the talk of the college football world.
The powerhouse program created a buzz when it announced plans to eventually leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The Sooners had first-team preseason All-American quarterback Spencer Rattler favored to become Oklahoma’s third Heisman Trophy winner in five years. They were ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP Top 25, sparking hopes that coach Lincoln Riley might break through and claim his first national title after going winless in three trips to the College Football Playoff.
Little went as planned. Even as the Sooners won their first nine games, they scraped by against lesser teams.
Rattler struggled at times and lost his starting job. Then, the Sooners lost to Baylor and Oklahoma State, meaning they lost their shot at what would have been their seventh consecutive Big 12 title.
Now, they’ve lost Riley. USC announced Sunday that he will take over as its head coach.
“Leaving OU was probably the most difficult decision of my life,” Riley said in a statement. “OU is one of the best college football programs in the country, and it has been forever. That’s not going to change. It’s not going to change in the SEC, it’s not going to change with another head coach. It’s stood the test of time, and it’s going to continue to do so.”
The 38-year-old Riley compiled a 55-10 record in five seasons at Oklahoma. Under his tutelage, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray won Heisman Trophies and were No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft. Jalen Hurts transferred from Alabama to Oklahoma in 2019, and Riley changed a player known more for his running ability into a Heisman runner-up and second-round draft pick who now starts for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mayfield, Murray and Hurts were all transfers, but Riley also proved to be a strong recruiter at the quarterback position, pulling in Elite 11 MVP quarterbacks Rattler and Caleb Williams from the high school ranks in recent years.
No. 13 Oklahoma expects to remain an elite program.
“When we met with the team today, I communicated to our players that our program is about them,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “It will always be bigger than any one person. And just as it’s always been, Oklahoma football is positioned for greatness.”
Even with that, the challenges are immediate. Quarterback Malachi Nelson, running back Treyaun Webb and receiver Brandon Inniss — all key recruits from the class of 2023 — decommitted on Sunday.
Oklahoma reached back to the past to steady things, announcing that former Sooners coach Bob Stoops will step in as the interim coach for the team’s bowl game. In his only head coaching job, Stoops went 190-48 (.798), including a national title run in 2000. He retired abruptly in 2017, making way for Riley to take over. He will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next month.
Stoops helped out last year when Oklahoma’s coaching staff was depleted because of COVID-19. He was more than willing to step in again.
“First and foremost, I’m a program guy, and whatever I can do to help OU and to support the players, of course I’m glad to do it,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can to help them finish the season in a strong and successful way, and I look forward to that.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.